There once was a time before actors became as ubiquitous as the weather, before minor-celebrity poker games filled the airwaves and videos too mechanical to be scandalous infested the Internet. In that golden age, the news out of Hollywood often was real news, and when the stars spoke, the culture quaked.
Witness the moment when Clark Gable removed his shirt in “It Happened One Night” to reveal an undershirtless torso. Within a year, the sale of undershirts plummeted by half. And witness the improbable rise of Louella Parsons, semiliterate, self-promoting, servile and often just plain wrong; this pioneer of gossip molded Hollywood careers, made a couple, broke a few and was all but inescapable for several decades.
Born in 1881, Parsons had three chief qualifications for the job. Writes her careful, critical biographer Samantha Barbas, she was a born gossip, full of “news of romantic affairs, out-of-wedlock births, and other local scandals.” She also was infatuated by the movies, whose dawning years she witnessed. Parsons had another quality that served her well: She was insistent, refused to give up or indeed give an inch, and when she made her way to Chicago and demanded work at the fledgling Essenay film studio, the boss dared not say no --especially because Parsons had lobbied his wife, not him.
Things ended badly at Essenay, though Parsons had the smarts to get out before bankruptcy overtook the studio. She found a job at the Chicago Herald, where, she later claimed, she invented the genre of movie gossip. Barbas notes that this, “like much of what she claimed about herself, was exaggerated.” Parsons inarguably used her job to advance herself whenever possible, and eventually to go to work for the boss himself: William Randolph Hearst, the most powerful figure in American journalism of the day.
As a sometime film producer and studio owner, Hearst exercised great influence in Hollywood, so much so that his longtime mistress, Marion Davies, and other Hearst proteges were able to secure parts beyond their abilities. As a Hearst columnist, Parsons took it upon herself to serve as cheerleader and booster for anything the boss might do -- and as a protector against anyone who dared cross him.
Taking up arms against ‘Citizen Kane’Thus, when rumors began to circulate around Hollywood that young filmmaker Orson Welles -- whom Parsons called a “would-be genius” -- was making a film obviously based on Hearst, Parsons swept in to pressure her allies in the business to have nothing to do with it. But Welles was a charmer, and he flatteringly assured Parsons that he merely was making a fiction of the life of a great dead man. Parsons bought it, assuring her readers that “it must be all right because Gregg Toland is the photographer. Gregg wouldn’t be part of a movie he didn’t believe in.”
Parsons was wrong. When she screened “Citizen Kane,” she realized her error. Too late, she tried desperately, and by whatever means necessary, to get RKO to withdraw it. “The film community,” Barbas writes, “was appalled by Louella’s unethical campaign against Welles.” For his part, Hearst was appalled by Welles’ success, and though Parsons kept her job, her influence with the boss and the public took a tumble.
Matters did not improve when a rival came along who knew the film business intimately, had comparatively few enemies, and wrote more fluently than Parsons. Hedda Hopper all but supplanted Parsons in the 1940s, though Parsons, ever the fighter, refused to go away. In many respects, the two were similar: Both were right-wingers who urged the House Committee on Un-American Activities to crack down on leftists in the film industry, though Hopper was the more doctrinaire. Neither had any concept of conflict of interest, nor any fear of making up the facts when the existing ones didn’t serve their interests.
Few grieved when Parsons died in 1972, and few Hollywood figures attended her funeral -- Bob Hope, Irene Dunne and David Janssen being the exceptions. To have made so many enemies is an accomplishment of a kind, and perhaps the one for which Parsons most should be remembered. Barbas’ thoughtful, well-written life of Parsons does much to explain her rise to fame -- and her steeper, much-deserved fall.